Dear America: It is time to take Russian and other Eastern European food out of the heavy, hearty, wintry box to which you’ve assigned it. (It would also be wise to stop assuming anyone who speaks Russian is inherently tricksy and engaging in subversive political maneuvers, but first things first; we’re here to talk about food.) Russian food is more than stroganoff. Ukrainian food is more than borsch (not borscht, which is explained below). Georgian food is more than khachapuri. Because of course they are, because nothing in this world is contained in a tidy compartment of our own stereotypes.
It may surprise you to learn that the countries of Eastern Europe — which for our purposes means former Soviet nations, including but not limited to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan — are not always shrouded under a bleak, gray overcoat of darkness.
“We do a lot to remind people that Russia and Eastern Europe have summer, too. Siberia has summer, too,” says Bonnie Frumkin Morales, chef and co-owner of Kachka and Kachinka in Portland, Ore. “Especially the first couple years that we were open, we’d see a real drop in the summer time. Normally Portland restaurants see an uptick in the summer, but our busiest [season] is in the winter.”
When summer arrives in Eastern Europe, so too can hot and sticky days that stretch late into the evening and enable a bounty of seasonal produce to emerge. Naturally, the people of these countries have quite a few ways to enjoy their spoils.
Take southern Ukraine, the birthplace of London-based chef and cookbook author Olia Hercules. “Our winters are mild, our summers long and hot, and our food a cornucopia of color and flavor,” she writes in her first cookbook, “Mamushka” (Weldon Owen, 2015). “The summers are so hot that the fruit we grow is everything that a perfect tomato should be — sweet, meaty, but also juicy …” she adds in the headnote to a simple cheese-stuffed tomato recipe.
Summer means peaches, too, and Georgia (the country!) grows (and exports) them. For a spicy, surprising and refreshing salad, dress sliced peaches with lemon juice, tarragon and garlic, as Hercules does in “Kaukasis,” her second book on foods from Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond.
Cold soups are a popular tradition in nearly any warm climate, and Eastern Europe is no exception. Think thin broths with tart sorrel, sweet or savory fruit-based soups, cold borsch topped with sour cream, and okroshka, a bowl of chopped cooked vegetables topped with kefir or kvass, a lightly fermented soda often made from dark bread. [In Ukrainian and Russian, borsch is spelled without a “t” at the end; as Morales writes in “Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking” (Flatiron Books, 2017), the extra letter was added at some point in Germany — along with some extra consonants: In German, it’s “borschtsch."]
And what is summer without a grill? Across Eastern Europe, you’ll likely find the mangal, a charcoal grill on which all things skewered are cooked. It spread throughout the Soviet Union from the southern parts of the Soviet bloc (think Azerbaijan and Armenia). “Because of that cross-pollination of cultures, you see people in Belarus, where my family grew up, cooking within that cross-cultural lexicon,” says Morales.
Dachas, summer homes of variable size that typically include at least a small garden plot, allow people to live seasonally, off the land. “Tomatoes and cucumber are the bread and butter. Everybody grows them and eats them fresh and puts them up for winter,” says Morales. The vast forests provide an even larger bounty of wild berries and mushrooms, ripe for foraging.
Russian and Eastern European preserving techniques deserve an article of their own, but for the final days of summer, we’ll stick to celebrating the fresh, which brings us to kompot, a nonalcoholic fruit punch. “In the summertime, people will just take whatever fruits are going bad and steep them” in water and sugar, says Morales. “You eat the little pieces of fruit and sip the liquid as you go. It’s cooling, it’s fruity, it’s light. I pine for fresh fruit kompot.”
In a brilliant move, Morales suggests topping a portion of kompot with a scoop of ice cream and a generous splash of club soda (rendering it a touch more American, don’t you think?). In the interest of research, we also tried it spiked with — you know what’s coming — vodka (it very effectively tamed the drink’s sweetness). Either way, drink it cold, and know that come winter, when it’s dreary and gray the world over, you can make kompot with dried fruit and pine for warmer days to come.
- 2 ripe peaches, pitted and quartered
- 3 small to medium plums, pitted and quartered
- 3 apricots, pitted and quartered (may substitute more plums or peaches)
- 1 cup fresh strawberries, hulled and rinsed (may use frozen)
- 3⁄4 cup sugar, or more as needed
- 6 cups water
- Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)
- Club soda, for serving (optional)
Combine the fruit, sugar and water in a medium pot over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low — just enough to maintain low, steady bubbling. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the fruit softens (but doesn’t break down or lose its shape).
Taste, and add more sugar as needed, stirring to make sure it has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for about 4 hours (or overnight), to cool completely. Store it in the pot, or transfer to an airtight container.
Once the punch is cold, ladle both the liquid and some of its fruit pieces into cups or mugs. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream and top with a splash of club soda, if using. Serve with a spoon.
Adapted from “Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking,” by Bonnie Frumkin Morales with Deena Prichep (Flatiron Books, 2017).
Tested by Kara Elder; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 90; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 0 mg; Carbohydrates: 22 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 21 g; Protein: 0 g.